A classic turns fifty
"What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" Has sportswriting produced a more memorable, succinctly probing question charged with so much depth?
To commemorate its 50th anniversary, scores of delegates and speakers, Mike Brearley included, will descend on the University of Glasgow (on Friday and Saturday) for a conference celebrating Beyond a Boundary, where we will salute the man who drew on a lifetime of struggle to write it: Cyril Lionel Robert James, CLR to one and all.
"Beyond a Boundary demonstrates that profound connections can be grasped by a popular sporting audience," the eminent feminist Selma James recently declaimed in the Guardian. True, she is the third and last Mrs CLR, and can hardly be regarded as a disinterested judge, but anyone who has devoured, or even dipped into, Beyond a Boundary would scarcely dispute her assessment. A passionate expression of a Trinidadian Marxist Anglophile's love for an imperialist game, in which he also wrote with eloquence, elegance and erudition about the way it fell short and the way it could and should be, the book was rooted in a quest to rid the world of racism and class oppression.
CLR was "a peasant by origin", attested George Lamming, one of the Caribbean's most eminent novelists, "a colonial by education, a Victorian with the rebel seed". It was Lamming, indeed, who proposed the original title, Beyond the Boundary, only for the publisher, Hutchinson, to substitute "a" for "the". This made no sense whatsoever to Selma James: "'The' challenges all boundaries, not just cricket's - a true description of the book."
It was, Selma believes, a book CLR simply "had to" write. "He understood the game, he believed, in ways most experts did not and could not. He considered himself more scrupulous about the game's technique and how it grappled with team dynamics, skills, players' concentration, and the psychological war between batsman and bowler, batsman and fielders. And he saw the game not only as it was played but as it was lived - and for West Indians that meant first of all a colonial society stratified by race and class."
In The New Ball Volume V, a wide-ranging homage to cricket writing I was privileged to edit, that estimable internationalist Scyld Berry asserted that the first cricket writers to "see beyond the two-dimensional" were Neville Cardus and Raymond Robertson-Glasgow. "Neither, though, went beyond the field of play to see the place where the cricketer was born and brought up, where he went to school or what community he represented." CLR, he believes, was "the first to see and write about cricketers in their social context". He was also the man who left no word untyped in his campaign to secure Frank Worrell's appointment as West Indies' (belated) first full-time black captain.
Yet to dig beyond Beyond a Boundary is to be taken aback. Not merely by CLR's reverence for us Poms (witness his purple-prosed homages for the Guardian after arriving here in 1932) but by his stance over sporting sanctions against apartheid South Africa, contrasting as it did with that of one of his most important subjects, Learie Constantine. To Constantine - the great allrounder, CLR's long-time friend and fellow Trinidadian, whose tireless efforts to improve the lot of Britain's growing immigrant population led to a lordship - West Indies' abortive 1959 tour of South Africa should never have been contemplated. To him, accepting the conditions laid down by Pretoria, in effect, would have endorsed that abhorrent regime. CLR disagreed vehemently.
"Do the Africans who live under apartheid thereby accept it? Surely that is absurd. Do our boys accept it? I cannot see that at all. I once spent six months in the USA, organising a strike of sharecroppers. I was kicked around as usual, eating in kitchens when I travelled, sitting in the rear seats of buses, etc. Did I 'accept' segregation? Did I help strengthen it? The facts are that I did exactly the opposite. The sharecroppers whom I worked with had a larger objective."
Delighted by the stir already created ("the whole world is talking about it"), CLR touted the projected expedition to South Africa as "a brilliant political step". He even wanted to see "an African make a century in the first Test, bowl Sobers and Kanhai for 0 in the same over". It would be in "a good cause", inspiring headlines outside Africa and, more importantly, within.
Think of what it will mean to the African masses, their pride, their joy, their contact with the world outside, and their anger at this first proof, before the whole world, of the shameful suppression to which they are subjected. Will this strengthen apartheid? To believe that is to substitute laws for human emotions.
To CLR the tour was already "a political bombshell". He wanted it "to go on exploding and exploding". The only people who could have been hurt were the local jailers: "I want them hurt and plenty."
Scrutinised from a distance of half a century, this perspective may be surprising, knowing as we now do the benefits of sticking to the Sam Ramsamy line about the impossibility of playing "normal sport in an abnormal society" - as encapsulated by Nelson Mandela's oft-stated gratitude to Basil D'Oliveira and the sporting boycotters for helping bring down apartheid.
On the other hand, when CLR expressed that seemingly contrary viewpoint, the merits and demerits of isolating South Africa were only just gestating. A few months later, on March 21, 1960, 69 black demonstrators would be massacred outside Sharpeville police station. From then on, resistance would harden, organise and spread, in and out of Africa. Nonetheless, even when D'Oliveira was (initially) excluded from the England party scheduled to tour South Africa in 1968, CLR did not favour aborting the trip.
Of the sportswriters who have carried James' torch - consciously or otherwise - three, for me, loom largest. And by no means simply because I know them all, or that two of them, like me, had a bar mitzvah, or that the plaque outside the University of Brighton newsroom bears the third's name. In order of seniority, they are:
Andrew Jennings, an Englishman vigorous and single-minded in his zeal for holding up to ridicule the greed and corruption of sport's biggest, baddest ringmasters, the IOC and FIFA, most potently through TV documentaries and scathing hardback tracts such as Foul! The Secret World of FIFA and The Lords of the Rings: Power, Money and Drugs in the Modern Olympics.
Mike Marqusee, an Anglo-American journalist, activist and author of several wise and compelling books examining sport and society, including an acclaimed study of Muhammad Ali and race, Redemption Song, and cricket tomes such as Anyone but England and War Minus the Shooting.
Dave Zirin, a full-time American whose fiery columns for the Nation and the Huffington Post, not to mention politically infused books such as A People's History of Sport in the United States and Bad Sports - How Owners Are Ruining The Games We Love, have made him American sportswriting's conscience-in-chief.
CLR, says Jennings, "did me a special favour", introducing him "to a world of politics, racism, struggle and beautiful narratives - and I'd never understood cricket before him".
Zirin was similarly taken. "Beyond a Boundary," he proclaims, "is one of the greatest sports books ever written." Cue the inevitable rider and ultimate compliment. "Even if one knows nothing about cricket," he insists, speaking from vast experience, "it provides a method for understanding sport and culture in a way that is truly profound. Every time I pick it up, I learn something new." Which perhaps explains why it is the lone cricket volume on Sports Illustrated's list of the greatest sporting books.
Marqusee comes closest to a contemporary CLR. He has written extensively about him, too, capturing Beyond a Boundary's enduring appeal as well as anyone. "As innovative in form as it is in content", he found it "uncategorisable", yet "for all its diversity, it has what many of today's hybrid texts lack: a commanding intelligence and a distinctive voice, dry, purposeful, thrillingly and theatrically didactic".
Sport, of course, is now a multi-billion dollar industry, with far-reaching social and economic ramifications. Corruption inevitably abounds, seemingly as never before: books are cooked, matches fixed, performances enhanced. The need for questions to be asked and answers demanded is therefore more pressing than ever. Sadly, Jennings is right to bemoan the lassitude and superficiality of so much contemporary sportswriting, so often a compliant servant of the infernal PR machine that protects the profit mongers.
Yet optimism is growing. Witness the unexpected rise in long-form journalism and the desire to paint a fuller picture, and thus get closer to whatever truth might be out there. Witness, too, the burgeoning band of twenty- and thirtysomethings, my students among them, who've already seen and heard far too much to have had their glasses tinted by too many specks of rose.
Only a few weeks ago I read a searching and moving article by Firdose Moonda in The Nightwatchman about the continued struggles of black cricketers in South Africa, further emphasising that CLR's second-most important message - politics and sport are indivisible - is still being absorbed and disseminated.
We could remix that immortal question - "What do they know of T20 who only T20 know?" Better yet, "What do they know of money who only money know?" But let's content ourselves with a gentler tweak: "What can they know of cricket who only cricket know?"
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton